On this Fourth of July weekend, thinking about freedom and revisiting the Declaration of Independence make me wonder if, in our highly partisan, play-it-safe, sharply divided nation, we could achieve national agreement on such a radical document today. Similar thoughts nag at me regarding the United States Constitution.
I don’t mind admitting that I get chill bumps pouring over records regarding people’s reactions to the first public readings of the Declaration of Independence.A commitment to freedom moved like a tidal wave across the land buoying individuals and lifting the cause of freedom to a call to action despite the possibility of the necessity of sacrifice.
According to the notes of a Maryland delegate to the Constitutional Convention of 1787, as Benjamin Franklin emerged from that historic assembly, he was asked if the delegates had established a monarchy or a republic. Quickly, but thoughtfully, Franklin responded, “A Republic, if you can keep it!”
On this Independence Day, 2009, I ponder the patriot’s words, “If you can keep it!” Surely, it is not enough to celebrate what has been; we must address what is and what, yet, could be and should be.
I confess to aspirations about our democracy, our land, and our people aware of the tensions that tint the fabric of hope. I want the Republic to endure, our democracy to thrive. Toward that end, I wish that we could
- nurture national pride without the taint of personal arrogance,
- exert as much creativity to protecting the Constitution as we do to seeking loopholes in it or finessing by-passes around it,
- practice partisan politics without engaging in pejorative rhetoric,
- feel a vibrant nationalism apart from desiring an unrealistic isolationism,
- engage in politics without making politics a religion, and
- practice religion without using religion to advance a particular politics.
I wish that we could
- get as excited about teaching civics as we do writing and reading,
- support the peace corps with a passion similar to that with which we support our armed forces,
- consider vision as valuable as pragmatism,
- feel the same degree of inspiration from teaching the world to sing as from marching to a Sousa military tune or applauding the firing of a cannon in the 1812 Overture, and
- understand defense and national security in terms of education and health care as well as bombs and guns.
May I make a suggestion, please? Let’s extend this year’s celebration of the Fourth of July so that it ripples into all of our days as Americans. And, today or this weekend, in addition to shooting firecrackers and watching fireworks, let’s find a quiet moment to read again the Declaration of Independence and to ponder the thundering importance of those opening words of the Constitution: “WE the people . . . in order to form a more perfect union.” Away from the fun of being with friends and listening to patriotic music, alone with your own thoughts, I encourage you to offer a prayer for the nation or engage in a meditation about your place in this government. Even as you resolve not to eat so much on the next holiday, resolve as well regularly to find a way to express your love for this country and contribute to its health. Perhaps it would be a helpful discipline for Democrats to find something good to say about Republicans and for Republicans to do the same with Democrats. Citizens who see themselves as Independents may want to recognize the value of political parties and the necessity of cooperation.
Should you happen to think of Mr. Franklin today or Mr. Jefferson or Madison, think as well of Elizabeth Caddy Stanton and Martin Luther King, Jr..
Oh yes, and if you can imagine Old Ben saying to you, “You’ve got a Republic if you can keep it,” tell him with a smile and quiet resolve, “Thank you, sir. We’re trying. We are trying!”
Happy Fourth of July everybody!